Two playing cards (ganjifa)

Northern India, 17th-18th century

Varnished and painted papier-mâché

Both 3.1cm diameter

Stock no.: A4862, A4863

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Two playing cards (ganjifa)

These two rare round playing cards, from the Indian game called ganjifa, are made from papier-mâché (compressed paper pieces or pulp bound with glue or starch) and are minutely painted in shellac mixed with pigments and highlighted with gold. The undersides of both cards are decorated with the same Timurid-style quatrefoil central medallion with arabesques in gold over a black ground. The face of one card is decorated with nine musicians wearing long belted tunics and turbans. Two of the musicians are on their knees playing a double-sided drum, probably the mridangam, the primary rhythmic accompaniment in a Carnatic music ensemble, and from which the Hindustani pakhawaj evolved. The drums are set horizontally, strapped to the men’s necks and covered in cloth (gallapu). The remaining seven musicians are dancing with hand-bells. The face of the other card depicts a European, probably an Englishman, in early 17th-century courtly attire. He wears a long-skirted sleeved jerkin, a doublet, a shirt with pleated linen cuffs, shoes, and a hat decorated with a plume.  He is seated on a European-style chair holding a ball, his white dog close by, both depicted under a tree in gold against a black background.

The word ganjifa comes from the Persian anjifeh meaning ‘playing card’, a term which appeared in the 15th century and which may be related to the Persian word ganj, or ‘treasury’. The first known reference to this game seems to date from the early 16th century, recorded in the biography of Babur (r.1526-1530), the founder of the Mughal dynasty in the Indian subcontinent. Authors such as Ahli Shirazi, in his Rub'ayat-i Ganjifa dated to c.1514-1515, and Abu al-Fazl, in his famous 'Ayn-i Akbari, mention the game in some detail. The game first became popular at court in the form of lavish sets of ivory inlaid with gems or tortoiseshell, called darbar kalam. The Mughal ganjifa contains eight suits, each of twelve cards, for a complete set of ninety-seven cards.[1]

The depiction of European figures on playing cards, such as on our example, demonstrates the allure that firangi (the Franks, as Europeans were known in Hindustan) exerted in Mughal India.[2] On the use of shellac - a material not to be mistaken for real lacquer - in the painted decoration of these playing cards, Sir Thomas Roe, Ambassador of James I (r.1603-1625) to the Mughal Emperor Jahangir (r.1606-1627), wrote, in 1616: ‘They paint staves, or bedsteads, chests of boxes, fruit dishes, or large chargers, extremely neat, which when they be not inlaid, as before, they cover the wood, first being handsomely turned, with a thick gum, then put their paint on, most artificially made of liquid silver, or gold, or other lively colours, which they use, and after make it much more beautiful with a very clear varnish put upon it’.[3] This is therefore the technique used on our two playing cards, as may be seen from the incredible details, masterfully painted with great skill, and similar to the painters working in the Mughal karkhana, or royal workshop. Their exotic, curious nature is heightened by their character as precious images to behold near the inquisitive eye.


Van Leyden, R., Ganjifa. The Playing Cards of India, London, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1982.

Terry, A. A Voyage to East-India [...], London, Printed for J. Wilkie, 1777.

Topsfield, A. (ed.), The Art of Play. Board and Card Games of India, Bombay, Marg Publications, 2006.

[1] Leyden, pp. 256-259; Topsfield

[2] Silva & Flores

[3] Terry, p. 128

Two playing cards (ganjifa)